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Order Food: A little Guide PDF Print E-mail
City Life - Practical Tips
Written by Noruma Mueller
I have been living in China for one year now. And like most foreigners, I always ended up in the same few restaurants and always ordered the same few dishes. Even in restaurants with an English menu or with pictures. I often didn't know what the dishes are, either because of translations like “bacteria fungus fried” or because the pictures don't really help you recognize the animal or find out if it still has lots of tiny bones.

It took me a very long time before I gave up and started learning some Chinese characters in order to be able to order food in a restaurant. And there are so many nice little street restaurants. With smells calling the people to go inside. But if you can't read Chinese - how the hell are you going to order? So, I  started to study the menus of my favourite restaurants and I must confess I was very surprised to find out that only a few characters can help a lot. You don’t believe me? Just have a look at the explanations below.

With the following 20 characters you will be able to order food in a small restaurant. Of course you won’t understand the whole menu, but at least you will be able to recognize some very popular or common dishes. And this is only the start. When you notice that you can understand about a third or half of the menu, you will be motivated to learn the rest. At least that was my experience. Just do not give up! And enjoy all the food Xi’an is offering!

You won’t be surprised about the fact that many of the dishes are rice or noodle dishes!

1    饭 » Fan » Rice
2    面 » Mian » noodle

combine those two characters with these ones:

3    炒 » chao » fried

to obtain fried rice and fried noodles


In dishes with meat you will find these characters:

4    肉 » rou » meat
5    牛肉 » niu » rou » beef
6    猪肉 » zhou » rou » pork
7    鸡肉 » ji » rou » chicken

And if it is a different character before the rou, you may want to make sure what animal it is... Be careful with the character for beef! You also can find it in the word bullfrog 牛蛙 (niu wa)

The next two characters give you information about the meat style:

8    丝 » si » For thin stripes of meat.  No bones.
9    排 » pai » For meat with bones. Also used in combination with fish
10  块 » kuar » Meat cut in small blocks
11  片 » pian » Meat cut in thin slices

鸡丝面 » ji si mian » noodles with thin slides of chicken meat
猪排饭 » zhou pai fan » rice with pork meet (with bones)
肉片饭 » rice with thin slices of meat

There are some special names for some special tastes.

12  红烧 » hong shao » braised in soy sauce
16  老干妈 » lao gan ma » old godmother style – seasoned with a kind of soy sauce which is viscous 

the following two characters are used to describe very good quality

17  一品 » yi pin » first class or best

Very often people call dishes after special places. Alishan for example is a very special place where the food and meat has high quality.

18  鸭 » ya » duck
19  鱼 » yu » fish
20  海鲜 » hai xian » sea food

As I promised, not so many characters!

But what if you are vegetarian or do not want to have meet in your dish? For vegetarians I have good and bad news. The good news: the chinese cuisine is rich in vegetables! Many of them with amazing tastes you can't find anywhere else. The bad news: it is difficult to find good  translations or descriptions of the taste of some vegetables. So you have to go out and try them! 

But then good news again, all green vegetables use the character 菜 cai.

菠菜 » bo cai » spinach, 白菜 » bai cai » c abbage

The mushrooms have either the character 菇 gu or the character 耳 er.

香菇 » xiang gu, 蘑菇 » mo gu, 木耳 » mu er.

All the different peppers contain the character 椒 jiao. 

甜椒 » tian jiao » pepper, 红椒 » hong jiao » red hot chilly peppers

Pumpkin » 南瓜 » nan gua
cucumber » 黄瓜 » huang gua
water melon » 西瓜 » xi gua

And some more:

茄子 » qie zi » aubergine
土豆 » tu dou » potato
西红柿 » xi hong shi » tomato

All these contain the character 瓜 gua. And so on. I have pictures of the vegetables organized by the sort. Have a look at it: Click here to view/download the PDF and print it if you like and take it with you next time you enter a restaurant.

I hope it is helpful for you! ¡Buen provecho!

Our valuable Editor Noruma Mueller has been with us since Sunday, 02 August 2009.

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+2 #5 Anna Jones 2010-02-16 11:46
very useful information, i appreciate.
+2 #4 martina 2009-10-10 05:07
thank youuuu, nice explained, so easy and useful fr daily simple orderings!!
+1 #3 Peter 2009-09-28 15:39
very useful article Noruma. very handy for those little noodle shacks that only have chinese character menus.
+2 #2 ND 2009-09-20 02:34
hello larissamel,

thank you! sending stories to ND is as easy as eating cake! You send us your storys to xianstories@new or use the link "Submit Story" at the very top of our website. :-). you will get full credits for any story you send us.

Please thank Noruma for that article, she is one of our best editors :-)
+1 #1 larissamel 2009-09-18 02:30
beautiful site, crazy! happy to meet you. thanks for this article, it is very useful! how can i send you articles?

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